Twenty-five years ago Public Enemy brought hip-hop into the mainstream. Before the bling-and-ho silliness of more recent hip-hop, Public Enemy was delivering dispatches from the front. If you want to see the trajectory of the concern for social justice in youth culture over the last few decades, Public Enemy is a good place to gain some perspective. If you wonder why white suburban kids listen to hip-hop, it starts right here.
It’s impossible to convey here the cultural significance of hip-hop. But it is worth emphasizing that its roots run very deep into the oppressive conditions of poverty, and hip-hop, like gospel, blues, and jazz before it, is the musical response to the temptations of despair. The sampling that most characterizes hip-hop is suggestive of the necessity to pull together whatever spare materials are available in the rubble of urban life; in this case, primarily old vinyl records and still-functioning turntables in a world that had already gone digital. In the early days, the samples were primarily from 1970s funk, which made it easy to pick up the beat as a thread through otherwise unfamiliar territory.
Public Enemy, unfortunately, made cumbersome videos that got in the way of the music, so I’ve excluded them here in favor of audio tracks. The track up top, “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” is probably not the one most people think of when they remember Public Enemy: it would more likely be “Fight the Power” or “911 Is a Joke,” both included after the jump. But I’ve posted it first because it may be their best work. The album from which it and the other two tracks are taken, Fear of a Black Planet, was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry in 2005. When I was searching YouTube for the version with the best sound quality, I noticed that a lot of the comments from various postings of it said something along the lines of, “the best hip-hop recording ever.”
[T]he democracies seem to be forgetting their revolutionary traditions, and their will to face the future seems to be sapped by a morbid fear of losing what they now have. But both religion and democracy teach us that ordinary society is highly expendable. Christianity insists that man’s ordinary actions are worth very little in the sight of God. Democracy was not founded on a maudlin enthusiasm for the common man, but on inference from original sin: that men are not fit to be trusted with too much power. Our students have been conditioned to regard such doctrines as depressing, although they were part of the vision of life that inspired Milton and Lincoln. Without the sense of expanding possibilities that such a vision brings, it is hard to see how the democracies can mentally adapt even to the social changes that will be forced on them, much less develop the creative energy to make their own. (CW 7, 114-15)